CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood challenged Coleman Hawkins leading into Friday night’s game against Rutgers.
What Underwood was looking for out of his sophomore forward was clear. Hawkins was going to draw the defensive assignment on the Scarlet Knights’ scoring leader Ron Harper Jr. How Underwood intended to get steady defense out of Hawkins, though was a bit colorful.
“I told him Ron Harper goes to bed ever night and envisions Coleman Hawkins in a pink tutu,” Underwood said. “Last year, he had his way with him. It was easy. He had him on skates. They put him in and ran whatever they wanted.”
The reality is Hawkins played just 5 minutes off the bench last season when Harper put up 28 points in Rutgers’ home win. And even less — just 3 minutes — when Harper scored 21 points in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals in a loss.
Underwood’s intent, though, was to pull the best version of Hawkins out of the Sacramento, Calif., native. Whatever it took. The result Friday night was Harper scoring just five points on 1 of 9 shooting, with Hawkins using every advantage he had to slow down the opposing team’s best player.
“When I envision Coleman, (Friday’s) kind of it,” Underwood said. “He took on the challenge of one of the best players in this league and a guy that’s really given us problems in the past. I thought that set the tone.”
Hawkins embraced the challenge. That it meant trying to shut down a guy he developed a good friendship with when he was recruited by Rutgers was just the icing on the defensive cake.
“Coach has been talking about this for a while now,” Hawkins said. “Who’s going to stop Ron. I need a forward. Ron’s a pro. This and that. I know Ron’s probably one of their best players. He can really score the ball and is a great three-point shooter. Taking him out of the game, I feel like they didn’t have any other options.”
A slight grimace came over Underwood’s face when he considered that Friday’s game against Rutgers was the first of 20 conference games. The Illini play at Iowa on Monday, and then the Big Ten grind begins in earnest in the new year.
“One of our goals is to win the Big Ten,” Underwood said. “If you can get through 20 games in this league and you come out on top, you have done a lot. That is yeoman’s job — a job well done. That is our goal. Everyone is going to get dinged. It just happens. The league is that good. The places to play are that hard. You've got to be at your best every night. That’s our challenge, and that’s our goal. Winning the Big Ten is what we’re trying to do here in this program every year.”
The Big Ten had a bit of a bounce back in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge this week after getting thumped in the Gavitt Tipoff Games by the Big East. Illinois’ win against Notre Dame proved to be important in the league winning the Big Ten/ACC Challenge for a third straight season. Ohio State topping No. 1 Duke was the signature win for the Big Ten.
“I think it shut everybody up,” Underwood said. “We had some losses early, which everybody loves to talk about. I think we’ve shown that we’re really, really good again and not afraid to hook horns with anybody.”
Andre Curbelo spent a third consecutive game at the end of the Illinois bench, ruled out for a still undisclosed reason after missing the season opener following his concussion in the first exhibition game.
“You don’t want to ever see anybody not do what they love doing,” Underwood said. “I think that’s the hardest thing for Dre is he loves to play ball and loves to hoop. He’s been in great spirits. He’s been a great teammate. He continues to help educate. He helps to talk, energize.
“We’re blessed that he’s got that type of charisma and that knowledge, but, again, there’s a process he’s got to go through. Everybody is supportive of that. We’ve got to continue to be there and be supportive of him.”
Curbelo’s teammates remain firmly in his corner as he works to get back on the court.
“He’s always with us, talking to us, helping us,” veteran guard Alfonso Plummer said. “He’s the same guy on the court or off the court.”
Curbelo’s absence, of course, means Illinois isn’t running much of its ball screen offense. Almost none, actually, this week in games against Notre Dame and Rutgers.
“Right now we don’t have a point guard,” Plummer said. “We’re just running systems. Everybody touches the ball and everybody is moving. It’s helping us to get shots.”
Those shots — particularly three-pointers — in conjunction with getting the ball to Cockburn in the post has become the backbone of the Illinois offense. Cockburn first. Three-pointers second.
“It was one of the things we did when we tried to build this team,” Underwood said. “We knew we needed to shoot the ball better. I said that all summer long. We felt like the three-point line was something we needed to expand our game in.
“You’ve got to surround Kofi with that. Kofi has shown a great ability to pass it thus far. He’s a guy that he needs to see the ball just about every trip down the court if I have my way.”
Cockburn surpassed his assist total from 2020-21 (five of them) on Friday against Rutgers (with two more to get to seven on the year). It’s what the 7-foot, 285-pound center has to do as teams continue to use physical tags from the perimeter when he gets the ball in the post and when he gets after setting any ball screen.
“He draws a ton of attention,” Underwood said. “He’s playing very unselfish for a guy averaging (24 points) a game. If you want to sit in there, that’s OK. We’ll let some of our guys shoot.”
It’s not just Plummer providing the shooting even though the Utah transfer guard caught fire during Illinois’ Hall of Fame Classic run in Kansas City, Mo., last month and hasn’t slowed down much.
“We’re good shooters,” Plummer said. “I’m saying the whole team can shoot. We’ve got 15 guys, and probably like 12 of the 15 guys can shoot the ball. If we all get that confidence like me and like (Jacob Grandison), we’re going to be a problem to beat.”
The change in the Illinois offense without Curbelo in addition to how dominant Cockburn has been since his return from his season-opening suspension has meant little playing time for Florida transfer big man Omar Payne. Even if the 6-10 forward has been playing well in practice.
“We’re not ball screening near as much as we were. Obviously, Dre is a big impact to that, and that’s where (Payne) excels. He’s elite in that area. He’s getting better in his post-up areas. He’s getting better at those post-up moves. He’s a very good face-up shooter. He’s playing much better than the number of minutes. That goes back to Kofi’s dominance. He’s sitting behind arguably the best player or one of the best players in college basketball right now.
Underwood continues to extend more trust — and playing time — to freshmen guards Luke Goode and RJ Melendez. The Illinois coach was high on their potential before they arrived on campus, and his opinion hasn’t changed through the first month of the season.
“It’s just the growing process that they have to go through — that every freshman has to go through,” Underwood said. “We don’t talk enough about all the changes that happen in the life of an 18-year-old when they come to college from living in the dorm to eating different to not having mom and dad to now basketball. Everything they know in basketball becomes much harder because the players are much better. It’s no longer an extracurricular activity. It's a business.
“Now, they’re starting to absorb what we teach and not have to think as much about doing it. It’s becoming habitual. When that kicks in, then you start getting really good players. I’ve been really, really pleased with what they’ve been doing."